Learning from the Baptists

By Bishop Mike Rinehart

Dr. Stephen B Reid

Stephen Reid
Dr. Stephen B. Reid, Professor of Christian Scriptures at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary on the campus of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, showed up at the Common Grounds Coffee House, on the south end of Baylor’s campus, dressed in shorts, t-shirt, Baylor baseball cap, and a warm smile.

As a part of my continuing education, I like to learn from scholars who excel in their field and those doing groundbreaking ministry. It’s fun to read books and then meet the authors. In the parish I had read about Ginghamsburg Church, so I went up and sat down with Mike Slaughter. A few years ago I went to Duke and sat down with William Willimon. Not everyone will say yes, but most folks are enthusiastic about their work and happy to share. This year, after my friend Joel Goza (Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Houston) had me read Baptist Roots, I got interested in picking the brains of some Baptist scholars.

In 1845, Baylor University was founded in Independence, Texas (just north of Brenham), making it the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of Texas. It moved to Waco in 1886 and merged with Waco University. My first time on campus, I found it a beautiful, immaculately groomed place. Baylor boasts 16,000 students on 1,000 acres. It is home to the young (25 years old) George W. Truett Theological Seminary, named after a famous Southern Baptist preacher. Truett has about 400 students.

Dr. Stephen B. Reid joined the faculty of George W. Truett Theological Seminary in the fall of 2008. Previously, he served as Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana. He joined the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary faculty in 1990, after serving almost ten years as associate professor of Hebrew Scriptures and Biblical Theology at Pacific School of Religion.

Reid is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association. He is the author or editor of such books as, Experience and Traditions: A Primer in Black Biblical Hermeneutics, Listening In: A Multicultural Reading of the PsalmsProphets and Paradigms: Essays in Honor of Gene M. Tucker, and Psalms and Practice: Worship, Virtue and Authority. He and his wife Kathy authored Uncovering Racism.

Dr. Reid is ordained in the Church of the Brethren. He has a B.S. from Manchester College, his M. Div. from Bethany Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. from Emory University.

Dr. Reid did his Ph.D. work in I Enoch and Daniel, but his passion extends to reading the Scripture through the lenses of various different cultures. Experience and Traditions: A Primer in Black Biblical Hermeneutics offers a taste of this. He took his love of Psalms, and their laments, and compared them to the blues, hints of one of James Cone’s chapters in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Reid uses a learning contract model with students and seems to love teaching.

Taking Hold of the RealOf course, when you converse with bright people, you always end up with more to read. He strongly recommended Taking Hold of the Real: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Profound Worldliness of Christianity (2015) by Barry Harvey. It’s pricey in hard cover and paperback, but only $9.99 on Kindle. Bonhoeffer writes about the this-worldliness of Christianity. Harvey says society is built around the constructs of race, culture, and religion, which define people by nation-states and capitalist markets. Christians are called to enter this world through the death and resurrection of Christ, witnessing to a new humanity, which unveils the futility of human categories. Reid: “We have dealt with groups by calling them culture, and we have dealt with color by calling it race. Once you see race as an ontological category, it changes the way you think about incarnation.”Listening In

Dr. Reid spoke a bit about the psalms of lament, comparing them to the blues. He is author of the book, Listening In: A Multicultural Reading of the Psalms. People love the psalms. Books of the psalms sell more than any other book of the Bible except for Genesis.

Reid grew up in Ohio, but later found himself in California. “Dayton is a world in black and white. The Bay Area is not. I had been raised in a bubble. We were still assuming a black and white world. We were reading the scriptures through a black and white lens. I work with my students to listen into cultures not their own and not European. As Christians in Texas, we have plenty of work to do.”

“I like to use a learning contract model of teaching. Students have an opportunity to shape the direction of study. They can read a commentary from Afrikaner noble, a Women’s TanakBible Commentary or a Global Bible Commentary.” Those who read such commentaries notice quickly how very different interpretations can be, and how our life-experiences shape how we hear the Bible. Reid was quick to suggest another book: Marvin Sweeney’s Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible. “There’s something about reading a Cuban writing about Amos.”

I shared some of our struggles with racism in regards to the growing Latino population and backlash against the African American community. He quickly moved to the practical. “Kevin Daugherty on our sociology faculty is doing work on race and congregations.” We discussed the fact that there are very few multi-cultural Mike and Stephencongregations. It’s a tough balance to keep. We talked about the possibility of a conference where we bring together folks and ask questions about multiracial congregations in the 21st century. What does the post-racial congregation look like? Who has made headway? How do we witness to the new humanity in Christ? Houston is now the most multicultural city in the country. How can we have a common future in Texas, and beyond?

When he left, I remembered once visiting an intentionally multicultural congregation in Houston, Wilcrest Baptist. There aren’t very many multicultural churches, so this congregation made an impression on me. We could use some congregations willing to move in this direction.

Dennis Tucker
Dr. W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. is serving as an interim pastor at a Baptist church in Hearn, Texas, down the road from Waco. Researching and writing his next book with a scholar overseas while teaching classes, I don’t know how he finds the time, but clearly his love of the gospel, the church, and ministry drive him on.

Mike and Dennis TuckerTucker is Professor of Christian Scripture at Truett. Prior to coming to Truett in 2002, Dr. Tucker taught at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He received his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition, Dr. Tucker received a Specialist in Education degree in Educational Administration from the University of Louisville. He has completed additional studies at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

Dr. Tucker’s main area of research is the Book of Psalms. His most recent book is Constructing and Deconstructing Power in Psalms 107-150. I’ve been slowly wading through this tome. In it he observes an anti-imperial critique in Book V of the Psalter. He also edited The Psalter as Witness: The Theology of the Psalter, released by Baylor University Press in 2015. Other publications include Diachronic and Synchronic: Reading the Psalms in Real Time, Image and Word (2009), The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology (2004) and Introduction to Wisdom Literature and the Psalms (2000). He also serves as series editor for The Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible. He and his wife, Tish, have three daughters: Hannah, Sarah, and Hope.

We started by talking about post-exilic theology. No kings are mentioned in Book V, not even David. Israel seems to be about reconstruction, and a bit disaffected of glorious monarchy. Yahweh is king, and a hope beyond this world begins to emerge.

There is much interest in the Psalms. Consider that pocket New Testaments often include the Psalms. They are beloved. Dr. Tucker recommended Donald Gowan’s The Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel.

I asked how teaching had changed over the last twenty years. He lamented that the biblical acumen of incoming students continues to lower. One wants to teach at a graduate level, but most don’t come with an undergraduate background on the Scriptures. We’re doing the basics.

We also touched upon the challenges of preaching a complex book to lay people and the struggles with inerrancy. Truett slipped away from the Southern Baptist Convention’s demand that all faculty sign on to the doctrine of inerrancy. Like Jimmy Carter, Tucker is part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, more of an association.

I found in Dennis Tucker the enduring heart of a pastor, someone who cares about the gospel both in the trenches and in the congregation. This has to keep one grounded.

Mikeal Parsons
I met Dr. Mikeal (pronounced Michael) Parsons at Baylor’s Tidwell Bible Building, where he offices. We rode over to the Indigo Hotel for lunch, meeting  with my wife Susan, (who had been shopping at Magnolia Farms Market).

Mikeal was raised in the mountains of North Carolina. He discerned a call to ministry at the young age of 16. He has taught New Testament at Baylor for 30 years. He has his B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Campbell University and his M. Div. and Ph.D. from Southern Seminary. His is married to Dr. Heidi J. Hornik, who is a professor of Italian Renaissance Art History at Baylor. They have written three books together, including:

Illuminating Luke: The Infancy Narrative in Italian Renaissance Painting. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Illuminating Luke: The Public Ministry of Christ in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Painting. Valley Forge, PA: T & T Clark International, 2005.

Illuminating Luke: The Passion and Resurrection Narratives in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Painting. Valley Forge, PA: T & T Clark International. November 2007.

I am currently using his Commentary on Luke, from the Paideia series. You can read excerpts from this commentary in Working Preacher for the upcoming Luke texts. While visiting, he gave me a copy of Body and Character in Luke and Acts, with the intriguing subtitle The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity. This book explores the belief in antiquity that a person’s physical appearance revealed inner truths about one’s soul. So short Zaccheus, the bent-over woman, and the Ethiopian eunuch would have been assumed to be flawed internally or perhaps evil. Luke’s gospel, however, subverts that Zaccheus turns out to be generous. The eunuch converts. Since the bent-over woman is coming up, I’m interest to read this book in the next week or so.

Dr. Parsons laughed easily and inquired about my family and the work of a bishop. He is very passionate about Luke/Acts, which has been his central area of study for decades. While being interested in the minute details of Luke/Acts, he also teaches Bible courses to undergraduates of all majors. He enjoys the interaction with young, inquisitive minds and differing opinions. He said he learns things with every class.

We chatted on quite a bit about Luke and Acts. He regaled me with information about number symbolism in the Greek: Iota and eta, with a line over it, is not only an abbreviation for Jesus in p57, but it’s also the way one writes the number 18 in Greek; 70 or 72 for the Septuagint (sometimes just seven), and therefore the mission to the Greek world (Gentiles); 12 for the twelve tribes of course. This is why in the two feedings of the multitudes, there are seven baskets left over when it happens in Gentile territory and 12 baskets when it happens in Jewish territory. He reminded me how uninterested first century writers were in actual counts, and how important number symbolism was. This ties to the upcoming Sending of the Seventy (Luke 10), as a mission to the Gentiles.

He also chatted about the curious triangular numbers in the Bible. Triangular numbers are serviced by adding consecutive numbers. Hence,

1+2=3

1+2+3=6

1+2+3+4=10

A list of triangular numbers is as follows: 0, 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, 45, 55, 66, 78, 91, 105, 120, 136, 153, 171, 190, 210, 231, 253, 276, 300, 325, 351, 378, 406 …

In John 21:11, the disciples catch 153 fish: a curious number, a triangular number. In Acts 27:37, Luke tells us 276 were shipwrecked. And so on.

Okay, so we’re Bible geeks. I couldn’t help but feel I’d met a soul mate. And it occurred to me, I didn’t feel like I was talking to a Baptist. I was talking to a Bible scholar, who shared my love for the Scriptures. Once again, I felt the denominational organization of Christianity melting away.

After three meetings my head was swimming. I had one more, a preacher who I believe will push me even more.

Joel Gregory
Read about the fascinating drama of Joel Gregory’s life.Joel Gregory.png I won’t go into such detail here. But Dr. Gregory told me the article was a pretty accurate narrative of his journey.

You can also listen to a podcast of this interview.

Then go on YouTube and listen to some of his sermons. The booming voice that some compare to James Earl Jones (aka Darth Vader) and his dramatic African-American style of preaching combine to produce a uniquely American style of proclamation. It’s never worked for me, and so I am filled with questions for him.

Dr. Gregory grew up Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas. He went to Baylor, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and then Baylor again. He learned ministerial ropes in small churches. Ascending quickly, he took Baptistdom’s most prominent pulpit, First Baptist of Dallas, resigning after two years. Divorced, Gregory sold door-to-door for a while. Then a prominent Black Baptist asked him to preach at an event. Preaching invitations rolled in, until he became the most popular white preacher in African-American congregations nationwide. In time, Gregory returned to Baylor.

Dr. Joel C. Gregory holds the George W. Truett Endowed Chair in Preaching and Evangelism at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. Last year he spoke or taught 170 times in 32 churches and 20 conferences in 18 states, Greece and Oxford, UK. He completed a sabbatical at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University where he did research in applied homiletics and 19th century British Baptist history for a forthcoming book and article.

Gregory holds the B.A summa cum laude and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He received the M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (1973) and taught preaching there 1982-1985. He served for two terms unanimously elected as President of the 5400-church Baptist General Convention of Texas. He has preached at venues as varied as Westminster Chapel, Spurgeon’s College, and Kensington Temple, all in London, as well as Regent’s Park College in Oxford. He has preached at the Baptist World Congress in Seoul, the International Seminary in Buenos Aires, Princeton Seminary, and Princeton University chapels, as well as scores of seminaries and colleges. His Proclaimers Place® seminars have been conducted in 17 states, Oxford, Paris, Rome, and Athens with more than 70 four-day seminars and more than 1000 pastors trained over the last ten years. For the last ten years, Joel has taught the seminar at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University. Check out “How Not to Get Shook up When Your World Shakes You Down.”

The World of Gardner TaylorI learned a lot. I began with the question, “Can preaching be taught?” I really wonder if you can teach outstanding communication. He said it can be learned. There certainly is a charisma, a gift that some have and others don’t, but everyone can learn, and even the best can polish their skill.

I also learned that only 1/3 of those working on a Masters of Divinity at Truett intend to fill a pulpit. Many are seeking combined degrees, like getting their Masters in Social Work and their Masters of Divinity at the same time.

Gregory spoke about preaching in the African American church. We have something to learn from them in dialogical preaching. “Fred Craddock says you don’t preach to folks in the African American church as much as preach with them.” He recommended Gardner Taylor sermons.

Preaching with Sacred FireHe also recommended Preaching with Sacred Fire: Anthology of African American Sermons 1750 to the Present. If you want to immerse yourself in African American hermeneutics on the ground, this would be a great place to start.

“Does every sermon have to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus?” I asked. “Hmm. Does every sermon have the gospel in it?” he reframed the question.

Paul Scott Wilson at the University of Toronto would say, “Always preach the gospel.” Eugene Lowry says, “No, preach the pericope. No subsequent theology.” Gregory has seen these two debate the question at the Festival of Homiletics. Some say, don’t go to “following theology.” We discussed the two different streams of thought here. I was trained in a seminary that taught every sermon had to proclaim law and gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus: the kerygma. “If I was going to err, I would want to err on that side…” He went on: “I side with Paul Scott Wilson: Preach the gospel, but maybe not always in explicit terms… There are many ways to understand the gospel. Gospel for Paul is not always an explicit proclamation of the kerygma. It is grace. It is God’s intervention.”

Gregory understands the power of images, but never uses PowerPoint himself. Faith comes by hearing, not by PowerPoint. He quotes Hadden Robinson, however, “I’m for anything short of sin, to communicate…” “We lose something if we lose the orality of descriptive narrative,” Gregory opines. He wants the preacher to paint pictures through evocative language. For breakfast with Jesus on the beach in chapter 21 of John’s gospel, you can use a photo of a sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, or you can paint a picture like a great storyteller, like Anton Chekov: “A stranger on the seashore… The morning air was frigid. There was a chill in the water. Peter jumped in. There was an olive wood fire with smoke that burned his eyes. The stranger handed him fish and bread, and he felt the breadcrumbs and fish oil… If you tell the story in a sensual way, I think you’ll put people more there than throwing up a picture of a sunrise over the Sea of Galilee.” Faith comes by hearing. Don’t over lean on images.

Preaching book“What texts do you use for teaching preaching?” I asked. He still uses Fred Craddock’s book, Preaching. He uses Tom Long’s The Witness of Preaching.

My approach is “Big Idea Preaching” from Haddon Robinson, so I use his stuff but haven’t been using his text recently. He said he had used Biblical Preaching, by Haddon Robinson in the past. Big Idea is having a theme statement (Wilson), a focus and function (Long). If I don’t drive at that with introductory preaching, we don’t get anywhere. You can be as narrative as you want to be in Big Idea Preaching. If the congregation has to figure out what the theme is, it’s a tyranny on the congregation according to Paul Biblical PreachingScott Wilson. Tom Long wants a focus and a function. What’s the subject and what’s the compliment. What’s it about, and what are you going to say about it? Barbara Brown Taylor: “At the top of every sermon, I write a sentence stating what it’s about.

My time with Joel reinforced the importance of having the clarity a one-sentence, present tense, active-voice statement of what the sermon is about. If you don’t know the point of your meandering sermon, your congregation probably doesn’t either. It’s fun to speak with someone who is so passionate about preaching.

Dr. Eugene Lowry will speak at Truett on September 20.